I think it is about the conversations.

For the last two weeks, I have been mulling over my first blog post of the year.  Every time I sat down to write, it felt clunky and half true.  I didn’t blog much this summer. I tried to write about the fantastic experience I had working with K-12 educators in my district, but I fell short on the follow through.

At the end of the first day of school, I read Tracey Zagar’s provocative post about what NOT to do on the first day of school.  As always, she made me think about whether my beliefs and practices are aligned.  Part of my job is to coordinate curriculum for our district.  Several years ago, I pushed hard to get us to collaboratively design curriculum, instead of purchasing a textbook or program. Prior to the adoption of the Common Core Standards, our four elementary schools were each using a different outdated textbook as their math “curriculum”.  I saw the transition to new standards as an opportunity for us to work collaboratively to understand the standards and build a focussed, coherent, and rigorous curriculum around our understanding. It is really challenging for teachers to NOT use a math program, especially elementary school teachers.  There are several reasons for this, including limited planning time, shallow pedagogical content knowledge, and a disconnect between their own math identity and the identity cultivation that needs to happen in math classrooms today.  I am not blaming or judging teachers, at all.  This is just the current reality of education.

In the last few weeks, I have had the pleasure of teaching, planning,  assessing, and (most importantly) reflecting with a variety of K-12 teachers.  Throughout these experiences, I fluctuated between feeling sure and unsure.   In our district, for each of our units, we give a common unit assessment that was collaboratively designed.  For some units, if the standards are closely aligned with standards from the prior grade level, we give a pre assessment.  It is the same assessment that we give for the post assessment.  The purpose behind giving the pre assessment is to see what prior knowledge the students are bringing to the unit. What do they know? What are they still confused about?  How can we build on what they know?

In the second week of school, I met with the second grade teachers.  We discussed the common Unit 1 pre assessment that they had given the week before. Several teachers were overwhelmed.  They conveyed their worries about all the assessing we are doing – not just in math, but all subjects. They talked about how some of their students were overwhelmed by the Unit 1 pre assessment.  As I listened, I felt unsure.  I questioned all the work we had been doing in an attempt to create consistency in our math instruction. We created these unit assessments together in an attempt to understand the standards and guide our conversations about what it looks like and sounds like to meet the standards. We have also been doing learning rounds to focus on the standards of math practice.  Last year we started doing learning labs at some of our grade level meetings so we could teach and learn together in actual classrooms with live students. Were these  assessments hindering the work we had done on cultivating a math culture that honors inquiry and risk taking?

Then, I thought about the teachers with whom I am currently collaborating. In one of our buildings, the math specialist and 2/3 teacher are co-planning and co-teaching the 2nd graders. They have been using Jo Boaler’s week of inspirational math videos and tasks. They invited me in to teach one of the tasks. When I entered the room the day of the lesson, the students were scattered around the room. Many of them had headphones on to dampen the noise. Some were sitting on t stools or exercise balls.  All of them seemed to be engaged in what they were doing.  One of them looked up at me and said, “Mrs. Caban. I just made three mistakes.  My brain is growing!”  The teacher informed me that they were finishing up their pre assessments.  I commented that they didn’t seem worried or upset.  She said she told them that they may not know the answers to the questions, but she wanted them to give it a shot because if they tried, even if they got it wrong, it would help her understand their thinking.

Back at the grade level meeting, the same teacher asked her peers about one of her student’s work.  She was not sure if the student is demonstrating an understanding of this standard:

    Understand that the three digits of a three-digit number represent amounts of hundreds, tens, and ones; e.g., 706 equals 7 hundreds, 0 tens, and 6 ones. Understand the following as special cases:
    100 can be thought of as a bundle of ten tens — called a “hundred.”
    The numbers 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800, 900 refer to one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine hundreds (and 0 tens and 0 ones).

Here is my drawing of what the student did. I have been meaning to get back to the teacher and take a picture of the actual student work, but I just haven’t had time.


So, this wonderful group of second grade teachers proceeded to engage in a conversation about what this student knows about place value.  One teacher didn’t think he demonstrated understanding of the standard because he included the values of all the digits and the question specifically asked for the value of the 2 in the hundreds place.  Another teacher disagreed.  She said he is showing the value of the 2 in the 200.  I think at this point I may have asked them what this standard had to do with the other standards that they teach.  They started discussing decomposition and how it relates to work with addition and subtraction. The teachers asked, “What did the student do for the other numbers?”  (there were 4 different three digit numbers).  He did this for one of them:


Looking at actual student work is incredibly important.  It is essential if  teacher’s are going to calibrate their understanding of student understanding. The irony is:  I don’t have it.  BUT, you are looking at my understanding of the student work that I analyzed with my peers and that is what this blog post is really all about.

The above story is one of many similar stories that I could tell about my first three weeks of school.  I have met with every grade level in our district. At every meeting, we took out pre assessments, analyzed them, argued about them, adapted them, and used them to plan.  There is a lot about our common assessments that bugs me:  some are too long, some of the questions stink, it takes a long time to score them because we use standards based rubrics, and my least favorite thing: they are stressing some people out.

What do I like about them? We created them together and they evolve with us.  Here are some examples of how they have evolved this month:

  • The first and second grade teachers decided to only give the interview section of the unit one pre assessment next year.  IF a students gets a “3” on the standard that is assessed in the interview AND seems comfortable with persevering, they will continue with the rest of the assessment. If not, they will use the information they get from the interview to plan instruction.  They said this will be less stressful and still informative.
  • The 6th grade teachers seemed to enjoy watching a teaching channel video on one of the standards before we commonly scored.  They want to do more common scoring because it really helps them reflect on the implications for instruction and what changes we need to make to the assessment and rubric.
  • The K-12 district interventionists want to devote some of our meeting time to making an assessment bank for the standards so teachers have a variety of vetted assessments to use to inform their instruction and measure progress.
  • Next year, we are going to try to postpone any pre assessments long enough so more people can devote the beginning of the school year to using Jo Boaler’s week of inspirational math without feeling rushed.

I am not claiming that our assessment system is awesome. I feel pretty crappy that there are kids in our district who felt stressed out in math class, but I think the changes that we are making will be an improvement.  What is most important is that WE are making the changes.

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